North Korea talks ‘deterrence,’ but it’s not what it means to the West

AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
A submarine-launched ballistic missile is displayed in Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 15, 2017, to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the country’s late founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un. North Korea held a similar military parade in its capital on April 25, 2022, marking the 90th anniversary of its army’s founding and to display powerful missiles and other weapons capable of targeting the United States and its allies.

North Korean rhetoric of late is so kinetic that it’s spreading concerns that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is about to move missiles capable of firing tactical nuclear warheads at critical American and South Korean bases into positions close to the North-South line.

As America’s 28,500 troops in South Korea were enjoying the long Fourth of July weekend, North Korea raised the decibel level by claiming “nuclear war might break out simultaneously in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.” Mention of the N word — “n” for nuclear — had analysts with long experience in Korea discussing what Kim might be planning for his next big surprise.

“The North Koreans have the ability to target specific military facilities such as a command center in a large base,” retired South Korean Lt. Gen. Chun In-bum told me. “Also, South Korean and U.S. bases would be certainly a target of attack.”

Kim’s threats to build up “deterrence” fuel the fears of tactical nukes exploding in a North-South showdown.

Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar who studied in North Korea’s Kim Il Sung University in the 1980s and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul, believes tactical warheads “would bring Pyongyang one step closer to realizing its old dream of subjugating the South.” The nuclear devices that North Korea has tested so far, he wrote on NK News, a website in Seoul, “are far too powerful and destructive for use in actual combat.”

Bruce Bennett, longtime Korea watcher at Rand Corporation, believes, however, that Kim still may be thinking big. For the North’s seventh nuclear test, he said, he may choose a warhead as big or bigger than the hydrogen bomb that reportedly blew up half a mountain in the North’s sixth, most recent nuclear test in September 2017.

“The North has already had a number of nuclear weapon tests of tactical size,” said Bennett. “I suspect that in order to catch global news, which is so diverted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and even internal news, Kim may actually try to test a weapon of yield larger than its sixth nuclear weapon test.”

Major U.S. bases would be the most vulnerable. “A weapon that size would be about right for targeting large U.S. facilities,” said Bennett.

David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel who served five tours in South Korea, cited “three key sets of targets” for the North Koreans, beginning with U.S. and South Korean air bases and major seaports. He thinks the North will pick targets where the South Koreans are mobilizing their forces.

“The priority targets are the ROK (Republic of Korea) and U.S. air bases,” Maxwell, senior scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told me. By focusing on these targets, he said, the North Koreans would have “the best chance of accomplishing the critical objective of any North Korean attack plan” — that is, “the rapid occupation of the entire peninsula before the ROK can fully mobilize and the U.S. can reinforce the peninsula.”

Among tempting targets would be sprawling Camp Humphreys, America’s largest overseas base, headquarters for U.S. Forces Korea and the U.N. Command, located 65 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the North from South Korea. Other top targets would be nearby Osan Air Base, headquarters of the U.S. Seventh Air Force; the South Korean air base at Cheongju in the central region, where the ROK  keeps its new F35s; and the U.S. air base at Kunsan on the southwest coast.

North Korea’s desire to deliver a quick knockout blow evokes memories of its invasion of South Korea in June 1950 when Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, was convinced he could wipe out ill-equipped South Korean forces within weeks. The great difference this time would be that North Korea could attack with nuclear-tipped, short-range missiles before the U.S. and South Korea could respond.

The North Koreans would have to strike fast, said Maxwell, to keep the U.S. and South Korea from “inflicting damage throughout North Korea” and stop them from wiping out “North Korean leadership and command-and-control targets.”

The enormous port complex of Busan on the southeastern coast also would be in danger of a nuclear strike.

“It is very likely,” said Maxwell, that the North would “simultaneously target Busan to deny its use for U.S. reinforcements” pouring in from U.S. bases in Japan and the United States. “If they wanted to destroy the port, they could employ nuclear weapons.” Ditto the major South Korean ports at Pohang, site of South Korea’s biggest steel plant on the East Coast, and at Pyeongtaek outside Camp Humphreys on the West Coast.

Moreover, said Maxwell, “They could use chemical weapons to terrorize the Korean workforce, which is essential to port operations.”

But would Kim prioritize South Korean over U.S. targets? Bruce Bennett at Rand recalled that more than two decades ago, defectors from North Korea testified before Congress that Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, believed “if North Korea creates more than 20,000 American casualties in the region, the U.S. will roll back and North Korea will win the war.”

Bennett said Kim “might hope that by rapidly killing enough Americans he can decouple the alliance between the U.S. and ROK. Targeting Camp Humphreys with a weapon the size of the sixth nuclear weapon or larger could cause that many U.S. casualties and even more,” he said.

For Kim, however, the blowback would be catastrophic. “Think of Pearl Harbor,” Bennett suggested, conjuring memories of the Japanese attack on the huge U.S. naval base in Honolulu in December 1941 that precipitated America’s entry into World War II. “I think an American president could be impeached,” said Bennett, “if he failed to devastate North Korea in the aftermath of such an attack.”

James Mattis, a retired Marine general and former Secretary of Defense, said at a security forum in Seoul that the logical response would be not be for the Americans and South Koreans to arm themselves with nukes, which the U.S. already has in Japan, but instead they need “a sufficient deterrent to ensure those horrible weapons are never employed.”

But what about America’s will to fight? Some North Korea strategists hope eventually the U.S. will shrink from “a direct fight with a nuclear-armed enemy,” said Andrei Lankov, and “skip its treaty obligations.”

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags Denuclearization of Korean Peninsula Kim Jong Un North Korea nuclear weapons North Korean nuclear test US military bases US-North Korea relations

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